Private Notice Question. - Foot and Mouth Disease.

asked the Minister for Agriculture the steps that are being taken by his Department to ensure that all possible precautions are taken to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease to this country in view of our close proximity to the outbreak in the south of England.

Firstly, let me point out that the protection of our livestock against the introduction of disease from abroad, including in particular diseases such as foot and mouth disease, is an around the clock operation carried out by my Department every day of the year with no let up be it Christmas Day or any other day.

There are long-standing procedures laid down at both the international and domestic levels for protective and for counteractive measures in the event of the threat or actual introduction of disease into our territory. At international level, through our membership of the International Office of Epizootics, we receive up to date information on the disease situation throughout the world and there is a process of immediate notification of disease outbreak between countries in western Europe. We have especially close links with the veterinary authorities in Britain and Northern Ireland and in emergency situations, such as the present outbreak of foot and mouth disease in northern France, Jersey and the Isle of Wight, we are in constant contact on developments. Officers of my Department are keeping in close touch by telephone with the UK veterinary authorities and there is also close liaison with the French authorities.

On the domestic front protective measures at ports and airports are an everpresent process. Mechanical disinfectant spray equipment is installed at the major portal entry points including Dublin, Dún Laoghaire, Cork and Rosslare. Mats saturated with disinfectant confront incoming travellers at ports and airports. Passengers coming in by sea or air are alerted by public address and notices, as well as leaflets in some cases, as to the necessity to report to my Department's portal officers if they have been on farms, livestock or meat premises, and so on while abroad. They are also warned against bringing in any meat or dairy products on their person or in their baggage.

I would stress again that these are on-going continuous measures at our ports and airports whether disease is close at hand or on the other side of the world. When disease is close at hand, as it is now in the English Channel area, our vigilance is stepped up but the protective measures are already there. In the last analysis we depend very much on the co-operation of the travelling public and in present circumstances I make a strong appeal to these people to co-operate fully with the officials of my Department at entry points.

What happens if despite our best endeavours a disease like foot and mouth succeeds in penetrating our protective barriers? In this context I might mention that the possibility of wind borne transmission of infection is not ruled out in the present spread of foot and mouth from northern France to the Isle of Wight. This gives some idea of the virulence of the disease and the sort of problems we are up against. Let us take the case of a suspected outbreak of foot and mouth disease occurring here.

A senior veterinary officer of my Department is on call 24 hours a day, every day of the week, and he is alerted immediately a report of a suspected case is received. This sets in train a series of events and procedures involving examination of suspect animals by veterinary officers of my Department, taking of samples, transportation to and analysis of these samples at the world reference centre for foot and mouth at Pirbright in Surrey and restriction of animal movement and general farming activity in the immediate area of the suspect case. If the Pirbright tests confirm the presence of disease, and this can be done within a few hours, an immediate and automatic set of procedures is put in train. These include wider extensions of restrictions on movement and activity, destruction of diseased animals, fodder, and so on, disinfection of premises, monitoring of adjoining livestock, and so on.

In the implementation of these measures we are fortunate in having a network of district veterinary offices strategically located throughout the country. We are fortunate too in having a corps of experienced veterinary officers who have first hand knowledge of foot and mouth disease through their participation in combating the last outbreak of the disease in Britain in 1967-68. We had a foot and mouth scare in the Tullamore area last August and all the procedures I have described were immediately put into operation. Happily it proved to be a false alarm.

This leads me to another point. We would prefer to have 1,000 false alarms than to let one suspect case go unreported for too long. Time is of the essence in tackling this virulent and highly infectious disease and no farmer should hesitate on the slightest suspicion to report any disquieting signs of disease by telephone direct to my Department or to the local veterinary officials. The classical symptoms of foot and mouth disease are high fever and the development of blisters on the animals mouth, tongue and hooves. There may also be salivation at the mouth. It can affect all cloven-hoofed animals including cattle, pigs, sheep and goats.

The effectiveness of the measures I have described is borne out by the fact that we have not had an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in this country since 1941. It was close at hand in the English midlands in 1967-68 but we managed to keep it out. It was also in the Cherbourg area in 1979 and again we avoided infection. Indeed, without in any way underestimating the risks from the outbreak in the Isle of Wight, I should like to stress that because of the ferry links outbreaks in northern France can constitute an even greater danger. While our experience over the years, and particularly during previous outbreaks in Britain and in northern France, gives us some confidence in our ability to prevent the disease coming here, it certainly does not leave any room for complacency in any quarter. Constant vigilance must be our watchword at all times and particularly in present circumstances. Livestock and livestock products are so vital to our overall economic wellbeing that a serious outbreak of foot and mouth disease could be a major disaster for us.

I can assure the House that I and my officials are watching the present situation very carefully indeed and, if developments so warrant, I will not hesitate to take any additional steps that are considered necessary to safeguard our livestock from this dreaded disease. This may cause serious hardship and inconvenience to the farming community and the public at large, particularly to persons arriving from Britain and the Continent and the importers of goods from those areas.

I am confident that public awareness of what is at stake will bring full co-operation from all concerned and I sincerely hope that containment of the current outbreaks in northern France and the Isle of Wight will obviate the need for more drastic action.

What new measures have been taken since the outbreak came to the Minister's notice? What measures have been taken at our fishing ports where fishing vessels travel between France and Ireland and come into a number of ports? Is the Minister aware that there are a number of private yachts sailing between the Isle of Wight and Kinsale? What steps have been taken to ensure that nothing will happen? During bad weather many vessels come into our ports and if they have dogs with them, they often take them ashore and go shooting in our State forests. What steps are being taken to ensure that these animals will be disinfected?

As I said in my reply, which I thought was very comprehensive, the control measures are already in existence and in operation and have been successful. Since the most recent outbreak, we have intensified our efforts to ensure that all these measures are working efficiently and effectively. As I said, I am satisfied that with the co-operation of all concerned we can succeed in keeping this dreaded disease out.

The Minister is not giving a specific answer. We know certain disinfection measures are being taken at all ports, but what new measures have been taken, or does the Minister think new measures should be introduced?

The measures being taken now are the same as were in operation all along and we have ensured that they are working efficiently and effectively. As I said in my reply, if the occasion warranted it, I would have no hesitation in taking further measures to ensure that the disease does not come here.

Does the Minister not consider that the disease warrants new measures being introduced now? French vessels will be coming into Rosslare——

The Deputy must not make a statement.

The Minister has not given me a specific answer that he has taken any steps to ensure that these people will be looked after when they come into our ports.

I have already said that the preventive measures are in operation.

Deputy L'Estrange.


I am allowing Deputy L'Estrange to ask a supplementary question. If he does not do so we will move on.

I want the Minister to give a definite answer regarding the information which Deputy D'Arcy has very helpfully given. Do his officers know that fishing boats and other vessels are coming in? In the past dogs have been carried aboard these vessels and allowed to land. This is very serious and perhaps the Minister's officials are not aware of such matters. After Whiddy and Buttevant ——

This is a statement.

—— there is no point in saying that there are people to attend to such things.

My officers are on duty 24 hours a day and are well aware of any difficulties which might arise, such as in the circumstances mentioned by the Deputy, and will take all necessary precautions.

The remaining questions will appear on tomorrow's Order Paper.